by Professor Steve Best --
"Strange as it may seem to the unscientific reader,
there can be no
denying that ... the manufacture of monsters -- and perhaps even of
quasi-human monsters -- is well within the possibilities of
"You cannot recall a new form of life." Erwin Chargaff
Everywhere in popular culture today, one finds
deep-rooted anxieties about science, technology, and the fate of the
human. Thus, in recent films such as The Fly, Jurassic Park, Species,
Godzilla, and Deep Blue Sea, as well as in shows like Prey and, of
course, The X-Files, the focus is on biological mutations, experiments
gone awry, and the creation of monstrosities.
Such media texts are responding, in part, to a
chemically saturated, increasingly synthetic, ozone thinning, global
warming world that has produced frogs with one eye or five legs,
encephalitic babies, lower sperm counts in men, and diseased and
diminished human beings affected by environmental chemicals that mimic
their hormones and disrupt biological processes. They are also
articulating fears of a powerful technoscience developed without
restraint in the service of profit.
Already, science has engineered overgrown mice, cows,
and pigs; "pharmed" crippled animals to exploit as drug factories for
human medicine; bred millions of acres of genetically modified crops
(some mixed with viruses and bacteria) that are spreading beyond
control, polluting neighboring fields, crossbreeding with weedy
relatives, harming insects and animals in laboratory tests, threatening
famine and disease. At the same time, xenotransplantation, the mixing of
animal blood and organs with humans, continues to erode species
boundaries and portends new plagues.
But one great writer caught these changes in his
perceptual traps well before they happened, and that was H.G. Wells, who
created what Isaac Asimov called the "science-fiction breakthrough."
Well's "breakthrough" was his earthly vision that science and technology
could transgress the "laws" of nature and create entirely new species
from disparate materials, resulting in terrible and unforeseeable
consequences. The changes soon to be effected in nature and humanity
were anticipated in The Time
Machine (1895), which concerns the entropic collapse of human
civilization, sharply divided between two warring species/classes (the
privileged Eloi who live above ground vs. the super-exploited,
subterranean Morlocks), in an allegory of nineteenth century class
struggle that mutates into unbridgeable biological differences, such as
eugenics might someday create.
But The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), is Wells' canonical
statement of a coming rupture in life processes. A multifaceted
exploration, it is a powerful protest against the self-proclaimed right
of science to experiment on animals and to engineer new life forms, a
critique of dangerous utopian
visions of "human perfection," and a profound meditation on the psychic
conflicts tearing apart humanity. Above all, it foregrounds what may
happen when science recklessly tampers with genetics and disturbs
intricate natural processes that have evolved over billions of years.
Forced to relocate his barbaric animal experiments to a
remote Pacific island when exposed by a journalist, Moreau undauntingly
advances his project to create new life forms, much as the infamous Dr.
Richard Seed has vowed to continue his research into cloning humans in
Japan or wherever necessary. Moreau describes his island as a "kind of
Bluebeard's chamber," an apt description for vivisection laboratories
around the world whose hallways echo with the shrieks of brutalized
In fact, Wells not only gave voice to outrage growing in
nineteenth century England against vivisection, he anticipated the
logical extension of these atrocities in the near future, as the
fictional crimes of Dr. Moreau progressed into the real horrors of Dr.
Mengele. In the words of Edward Prendrick, the hapless traveler marooned
on Moreau's island, Wells asks the terrible question, "could the
vivisection of men be possible?" We know now -- through Auschwitz; the
Tuskegee, Alabama experiments that withheld penicillin treatment from
399 black men infected with syphilis; the intentional infection of
mentally retarded children with hepatitis-B by doctors at Willowbrook
State Hospital in Staten Island; numerous radiation experiments on
unwitting victims in the U.S.; and countless cases of human "volunteers"
for medical "research" who were not informed of the serious risks they
were taking -- that the answer is affirmative.
Upon arriving to the island, Prendrick hears cries from
the "House of Pain," smells antiseptic, and witnesses the sundry "Beast
Folk" engineered by Moreau, a grotesque menagerie of transgenic freaks
that include mixtures of hyena and swine, ape and goat, bear and bull,
and horse and rhinoceros. Initially, he sees them as humans devolved
into animals, but Moreau informs him that in fact they are animals he is
trying to elevate into humans, changing not only their entire physical
reality but also their minds to prohibit any "regression" to animal
behavior -- anticipating how eugenics tries to weed out of humanity all
traits it deems undesirable."
Amidst lush surroundings, Predrick see "the whole
balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct,
reason, and fate in its simplest form." On this microcosmic island,
symbolic of the isolation of science from the public, there is a
constant battle between instinct and morality, desire and reason. The
chimeras -- the animal-humans -- play out the full tension of their
being, much as human beings today struggle at the crossroads of past and
future evolution, "rational animals" who still have not evolved beyond
the primitive urges of war, violence, killing, hatred, and social
hierarchy. Encountering the shock of "the strangest beings" he has ever
seen, Prendrick realizes the island "is full of inimical phenomena" and
he condemns Moreau as a "lunatic" and "ugly devil." He concludes that
Dr. Moreau, like Mary Shelly's Dr. Frankenstein, "was so irresponsible,
so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations,
drove him on."
Moreau, of course, has a different image of himself.
Although he has perfected the art of scientific detachment, and is
exquisitely indifferent to the pain he inflicts on his victims, he
imagines himself -- in the bad faith of so many animal experimenters and
genetic engineers -- as a benefactor to the world, as one who is trying
to realize his utopian vision of a perfect humanity. For twenty years,
Moreau devoted himself "to the study of the plasticity of living forms."
Rejecting any belief that nature and species
boundaries are fixed, he seeks to "conquer" nature, to bend it to his
will, to become God-like in his power to design species, while admitting
that he has "never troubled himself about the ethics of the matter."
Nothing today could better summarize the mentality of many genetic
In an uncanny anticipation of xenotransplantation and
genetic engineering, Wells, speaking through Moreau, imagines that "it
is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to
another or from one animal to another, to alter its chemical reactions
and methods of growth, to modify the articulation of its limbs, and
indeed to change it in its most intimate structure." Yet, every time
Moreau's chimeras seem to verge toward "triumphs of vivisection"
("genetic engineering" was not yet in the scientific vocabulary) they
revert to animality. Despite Moreau's conditioning that he believes
makes it impossible for the chimeras to disobey his will, they regularly
break his laws, and in time rebel and kill him. The Beast Folk rampage
out of control, as scientific reductionism cannot fathom biological
complexity and humans prove unable to control powerful technologies that
ultimately destroy them.
At the end of John Frankenheimer's 1996 film version of
the novel, the empathetic Prendrick, upon leaving the island, tells the
subhumans he will bring back the best of Western science to help, but a
victim of this very science implores: "No more scientists, no more
laboratories, no more research ... We have to be what we are." One can
easily imagine a real Moreauvian island of genetic pariahs in the very
near future, a place where the botched experiments and mutilated satyrs
and subhumans live out their pathetic lives, condemned to labor or
endure further experimentation.
As if enough animals are not already confined, tortured,
and slaughtered in the laboratories and factory farms of the world, U.S.
and Europe are now "pharming" an array of animal-human composites for
their blood, milk, and organs. Gruesomely, scientists have created
headless embryos of mice and frogs, dispensing with their superfluous
heads so that they harvest only their organs -- a practice biologist
Richard Slack imagines could easily be used on human embryos also grown
as mere organ sacks for their genetic donors.
The Island of Dr. Moreau deserves to be re-read today.
It is a brilliant meditation on technology out-of-control, of unethical
usages of "objective" science, and of mutations to come in nature and
humanity as technoscience aggressively embarks on its explorations into
microcosmic reality, unimpeded by legal regulation or public debate.
Here, the disparity between technical ability and philosophical wisdom
may well make today's sci-fi fantasy tomorrow's living nightmare.
Steve Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and
Humanities at the university of Texas, El Paso. He is Vice-President of
the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, a long time vegan and animal rights
activist, and author of numerous books and articles in the areas of
social theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Some of his writings
are posted at
This article originally appeared in "Life Giving
Choices," the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).
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